1. Northwestern has an excellent academic reputation. What percentage of the students would you say are hardcore NW football fans?
People at other schools don't believe me when I say the student tickets are free. Nah, seriously, they're free. You can get there early for good seats, but I was more a fan of sprinting out of your tailgate to the shuttle stop about 20 minutes before the game, swipe your student ID, and you're in. I'd say half of the student body goes to games, but maybe I'm being generous, and besides, for most people it's a social event with football mixed in.
The problem with Northwestern football's fanbase is that virtually the entire fanbase are alumni - most people support their local state school instead of the purple elite academic school, even if they live close by - and that with only 8,000 undergrads, it has the smallest alumni base of any Big Ten school, and only the tenth-largest in the Chicago area out of 12. Plus, since it's an academic school, you have a lot of people like me who come from New York, then go back to New York after college and can only make it to one game a year. The plus side of a geographically scattered fanbase is that although we have relatively low home attendance, we always travel well to bowls. We're small, but its to be expected with our school size, and the fanbase grows every year, especially since we keep winning.
2. On that same note, schools like Northwestern, Stanford, Duke, Vanderbilt, and Rice are all in bowl games, and even Notre Dame is back in the national championship game - what is going on? Are you smart people going to beat us in sports and then be our bosses too?
Ah-hahahaha, good point, sport! But seriously, old chap, I don't see myself managing a fast food restaurant anytime soon, so I probably won't be the boss of you anytime! Ahh, yes, I daresay that that joke will go over swimmingly, Sterling. You are getting this all down, right Sterling? (THIS IS STERLING, RODGER'S BUTLER, PLS SEND HELP)
In all seriousness, the "NERDS ARE GOOD AT FOOTBALL" storyline has gotten a bit played out of late, especially since we like scheduling Vandy and Duke and Stanford. I think it's a conscious decision made by Pat Fitzgerald and his coaching staff: are we going to try to recruit the best football players in Illinois and watch them play for Notre Dame and Michigan and Wisconsin, or are we going to try to recruit the best smart players in the country, and tell them they have a chance to win football games and maybe make the NFL and have a good degree if they don't? It works. Not only does NU win a decent amount of games, they also graduate close to 100 percent of our players. That leads me to believe that they're actually leveraging academics as a selling point to quality recruits. That said, you don't know true embarrassment until you're slumped over and miserable with a hangover in discussion section while an all-conference lineman is busy contributing to the class conversation with insightful points on a reading you didn't do.
3. On to football - the stats suggest NW is solid on both sides of the ball, is that true? What are the weaknesses of this team?
It's a bit of a shock to any NU fan to see Northwestern considered good on defense, but, uh, I guess we are. Northwestern helped popularize the spread offense in the early 2000's, and as such, we have a tendency to do well offensively, whether it's due to scheme or talent on that side of the ball. But defense has typically been a step behind, leading to a lot of shootouts we'd rather not talk about.
This year, however, the front seven really impressed, and although the pass defense has had its EEEEK moments, they're good when healthy. If anything, its been a two-faced offense that's been an issue at times: Kain Colter is our running QB, Trevor Siemian is our passing QB, and the team's insistence on never having either player switch it up led to some highly predictable offensive gameplans that got stuffed.
4. It appears as though NW has a very good running attack led by Venric Mark who had 1,310 yards this year. It is a power run game led by the offensive line, or do y'all rely more on scheme?
This line has shown major improvement from years past, but it's definitely a scheme thing. Northwestern has run a very effective option with Colter and Mark. Colter's the quarterback, but at times he's gone whole games without throwing more than a couple passes - Siemian comes in to throw, while Colter just optioned and did zone reads and sometimes split out wide as a receiver. The zone read has been very effective, with Colter sometimes holding the ball for incredibly long times on the mesh before bolting to the outside, and often there's a third option for Colter to pitch to if he decides to keep. As for Mark, he's been a real revelation this year: he started his career as a wide receiver, with many thinking the transfer to RB wouldn't work because he's only 5-foot-well, let's say seven, and that the Big Ten would eat him up. That hasn't been the case: he's speedy as all get out, as you can tell by his All-American punt returner status, and he can take hits just like a big boy. Northwestern had struggled to find a running back for a while, but with Mark and Colter back there, defenses struggle to keep up with the speed.
5. Are there any matchups you think NW may have the upper hand in the Gator Bowl, and are there any matchups you are worried about?
The guy we're supposed to watch out for is supposedly Johnthan Banks, but that doesn't particularly worry me: not that Banks isn't as good as advertised, but Northwestern has always made a habit of spreading the ball between four or five different receivers, which should minimize Banks' shutdown ability. Plus, we're a ground team.
I do worry we don't have somebody to stop the Russell-Bumphis connection, as there's been a bit of a rotating door in our secondary, but freshman corner Nick VanHoose has played pretty well when healthy.
6. Considering Northwestern's history in bowl games, and the Big Ten's (and the rest of the country's) SEC fatigue, how much would it mean to win this game?
Uhhhh, a lot. Let me lay it out for you: unlike you win-every-bowl-game-we-play-in jerks, Northwestern has had postseason struggles. We won the 1949 Rose Bowl, but things took a pretty friggin sharp downturn after the Truman administration. NU didn't play in a bowl game again until 1996, in the first of two straight out of nowhere conference championship seasons. Since, we've played in eight more, and lost all of them. That makes us the team with the longest time since our last bowl win AND the team with the most consecutive bowl losses, including big L's in the past four seasons.
So now we're a team that makes a bowl every year, and loses every year. IT AIN'T FUN. There's jokes and a giant monkey chilling out on our back, casually tossing banana peels in our path and having a blast. A win would be huge for the program, even if the Gator Bowl isn't Pasadena.
Oh, and this would only be the third 10-win season in program history, and Pat Fitzgerald would become the winningest coach in program history with the win, so if y'all want some karma on your side you should just sit down and let the storyline happen.
I've got Northwestern, sorry. F+ predicts an NU blowout, but I don't want to get too cocky, so I'll go NU, 34, MSU, 28.